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A worthy rival to the iPhone

David Pogue April 29, 2013 The New York Times
The Galaxy S4's dual camera app lets the photographer appear in a movable inset within the photo or video. nyt

The Galaxy S4 basics are excellent. But it is buggy in spots and laden with not-quite-here features, says David Pogue.

We’re No.2,” went the old Avis slogan. “We try harder.” There’s a world of wisdom there. When Apple designed its original iPhone, it had zero market share; the company had nothing to lose by taking risks. As a result, the phone teemed with bold ideas.

But as the iPhone became more iconic and more important to Apple, the company’s courage to shake things up has dwindled. Why mess with a great thing? That timidity gave Samsung the opening it needed. Its Galaxy S phone went after the iPhone with all guns blazing and soon became a cellular celebrity in its own right.


When it was a distant would-be, Samsung had nothing to lose. “Let’s try making the screen really huge!” “Let’s try hand gestures!” “Let’s try eye recognition!” Now Samsung is starting to play it safe.

The Galaxy is still a beautiful, high-horsepower Android phone. But basically, it’s an updated Galaxy S3. If this were Apple, which adds the letter S to denote a slightly upgraded model (“iPhone 4S,” for example), Samsung might have called this phone the Galaxy S3S.

The S4 is the same size as the S3. It’s still huge, more Jumbotron than index card. Good for maps and movies, bad for small hands. And the S4 is still made of plastic – lightweight and grippy, but not as classy as the iPhone’s glass or the HTC One’s metal.

All told, nobody at the office will notice that you’ve bought the latest and greatest.
Yet Samsung has managed to cram better components into this wafer without increasing its size. The bright, supersharp screen is now 5 inches diagonal, up from 4.8; the margins have shrunk.

The battery is 20 percent bigger, too. That doesn’t necessarily mean much improvement in the one-day battery life, because the larger screen drinks up more power. Fortunately, you can still pop off the back panel and swap batteries, which you can’t do on an iPhone without a blowtorch. You can also expand the storage with a memory card.

Most of the other changes in the S4 are software features. More than ever, Samsung’s design approach this time was, “Throw everything in and see what sticks.” There was absolutely no filter. There’s also no consistency, coordination or unified direction; it’s just a big, rattling cargo bay crammed with features. A few examples:

Smart Scroll: This is the S4’s much anticipated eye tracking. Like its predecessor, the S4 can recognize your eyes; it can, for example, dim the screen when you look away, to save battery power. In the S4’s video app, playback pauses when you look away (usually).

Better yet, the Web page or email message you’re reading scrolls when you tip your head, or tip the phone a little bit. No hands! It’s unpredictable and gimmicky, but hey – it’s innovation, right?

Air View: Point to the screen without actually touching the glass to get a pop-up preview of something. For example, point to a calendar square to see a pop-up preview of that day’s events, or to a Gallery thumbnail image to see the full-size photo. Unfortunately, this feature is inconsistent. Why does it work in the Mail program, but not the Gmail program?

Air Gestures: A sensor sees when you’re waving your hand – a feature that “really adds value when you’re eating with greasy fingers,” Samsung says. You can scroll a Web page or email message by flapping your hand, or accept an incoming call with a wave. When the phone is locked and dark, waving makes the screen light up long enough for you to see the time, battery gauge and notification icons.

S Translator: Supposedly, this app is the universal translator of sci-fi dreams. You type or even speak in one language; the phone displays and speaks a translation in another. It sort of works when you type, about as well as Google’s translation page. But the phone makes mincemeat of spoken utterances – and that’s before it tries a translation. Sorry, Trekkies.

These gee-whiz recognition features work only in certain apps; learning which ones takes some time. And some come turned on, some off; the decisions seem arbitrary. When you first turn on your S4, you’re offered a list of them, with explanations, but my S4 ignored some of the selections I made there.

Nor is that the only bug. My unit crashed constantly, dumping me unceremoniously out of the Camera app or the Settings pages and instantly forgetting preferences I’d set.

The camera is very good, but the 13-megapixel photos are slightly soft and, in low light, grainy. The Camera app has received a makeover, too, following the same feature philosophy: anything goes. You can snap stills while recording video.

You can film in slow motion or fast motion. You can apply Instagram-style filters (weird colors, aging effects) to either stills or video, and preview the effect before you take the shot. That’s not even counting the specialty modes:

Drama shot: The phone takes dozens of photos of a moving subject (a skateboarder, say). The software creates a single composite shot, displaying several copies of your skater in various stages of motion.

Animated photo: You create a movie, and then paint out portions of the scene that you want frozen. The result: a still photo where only one element (say, a ceiling fan or a fountain) is moving.

Dual camera: Both the back and front cameras are active. You, the photographer, appear in a movable inset within the larger photo or video.

Here’s a twist for you: The best new S4 feature is one that hides most of them. It’s Easy Mode, and it will make a lot of people very happy.

In this mode, the S4’s feature snowstorm clears up. There are only three Home screens, and the icons on them are big, few and clear, like Camera, Internet, Phone, Messaging. Some apps have been simplified and given bigger, bolder fonts: Calendar, Settings, the dialer, Email and Messaging. In the Web browser, a handy (PLUS) button pumps up the type size.

Samsung doesn’t exactly say that the new Easy Mode is for old people. But clearly, it’s for people who favour large type and simple functions.

And why not? Until now, phone hardware advances – faster Internet, better cameras, nicer screens – have been accompanied by increased software clutter. But why must they go hand in hand? Why shouldn’t you have a state-of-the-art phone with a clean interface?

In the end, the Galaxy S4 is a good choice for people at opposite ends of the technical spectrum: gadget hounds who love to customise at one end, and (thanks to Easy Mode) the easily overwhelmed at the other.

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